“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.” These words have been etched in my memory since I was a teenager, reading this book to my younger brother, then just a toddler. He was too young to read, but smart enough to have the book memorized. All I had to do was turn the pages, and he could recite every word.
As an adult, the more I read about the Austrian-born author, Ludwig Bemelmans, the more convinced I am that his more grown-up writings are one of the best kept secrets of 20th Century American literature. His Madeline books are well known to a few generations of Americans. New Yorkers may also know him for Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle on the Upper East Side. Some of us may also remember the New York Historical Society’s 2014 exhibit, Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans. But his writings about food, travel, restaurants and the hospitality business in 1930s New York City seem to be widely unknown.
I recently finished reading Hotel Bemelmans, a series of autobiographical stories chronicling Bemelmans’ time working at New York City’s Ritz Carlton Hotel or, as he calls it in the book, the Hotel Splendide. From Anthony Bourdain’s introduction to a 2002 reprint of Hotel Bemelmans:
He was the original bad boy of the New York hotel/restaurant subculture, a waiter, busboy and restaurateur who “told all” in a series of funny and true (or very near true) autobiographical accounts of backstairs folly, excess, borderline criminality and madness in the grande Hotel Splendide. … Kitchen Confidential—as I learned recently, reading these pages for the first time—was nothing new at all. Bemelmans got there first, more frequently and better, describing brilliantly the whole world of kitchens, back passageways, pilfered foods, dining rooms and banquet halls—a strange, fabulous and sometimes terrible world populated by rogues, con-men, geniuses, craftsmen, lunatics, gypsies, tramps and thieves. It is truly a great book that paints a universe both fascinating to outsiders and immediately familiar to anyone who has ever dwelled there. … The grand hotels of Bemelmans’ time—mammoth spaces filled nightly with the constructed follies of their wealthy clienteles: costumed dervishes, tableaux vivants, temporary lagoons, private dining rooms, permanent residents (all supported by a hidden network of underground labourers like the workers in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis)—are long gone. … As a chronicle of days gone by and life in the trenches of the hospitality business, the book is unique, invaluable and unapproachable as the gold standard of the genre.”
If you like stories about old New York as I do, this is a classic that will have you laughing out loud at his characters as you turn the pages. From Hotel Manager Herr Otto Brauhaus, who constantly yelled “Cheeses Greisd!” and “Gotdemn it!” to Gabriel, the legendary maîtres d’hotel who oversees a 1937 birthday party for Mrs. George Washington Kelly that included a ballroom replica of her Miami retreat, O Sole Mio, complete with royal palms, orange trees, a two-hundred-foot tank that served as a lagoon painted the precise turquoise shade of the waters around Miami, a gondola from Venice, a Hawaiian orchestra and quintuplet midgets carrying a 10-foot-high raisin and almond birthday cake.
Described in most biographical sketches as a bon vivant, Bemelmans wrote more than a dozen books about food and travel, in addition to his seven well-known Madeline books.
And once you’ve read some of Bemelmans’ work, do pay a visit to the Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle, adorned with the author’s murals, the only surviving commission of his open to the public. Drinks are pricey and you’ll find a cover charge during evening hours. But, like the Oyster Bar at Grand Central or the Russian Tea Room, this is a unique New York experience that is well worth the cost.
That’s all there is. There isn’t any more.